'You Have Dark Skin And You Are Beautiful': The Long Fight Against Skin Bleaching Minnesota public health educator Amira Adawe wants women to stop using harmful skin bleaching products — but hers is not an easy fight.

'You Have Dark Skin And You Are Beautiful': The Long Fight Against Skin Bleaching

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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Around the world, skin bleaching is popular, particularly in India, China and parts of Africa. Some immigrants have taken the tradition to the United States. In Minnesota, where the largest Somali community in the U.S. resides, one woman is now leading a movement to try and get people to stop using skin-bleaching products. Nancy Rosenbaum reports.

NANCY ROSENBAUM, BYLINE: Amira Adawe grew up in Mogadishu and moved to the U.S. when she was 17. Both there and here in the U.S., she saw lots of Somali women using products to lighten their skin. And it made her wonder, what was in the creams? And how did they work so quickly? Once hired by St. Paul's County public health department, Adawe began to investigate the products.

AMIRA ADAWE: And that's what public health teaches you - finding a problem and solving it - yeah.

ROSENBAUM: The research found toxic levels of mercury in some of the creams - creams that women told her they slathered on their bodies, sometimes several times a day, even when they were pregnant or breastfeeding. Salma Ali is Somali-American and lives in the Twin Cities. She says that skin-bleaching products are pervasive in her community.

SALMA ALI: Across all cultures, darker-skinned people have, like, self-esteem issues. Like, the lighter you are, the more beautiful you are seen as.

ROSENBAUM: Ali is 19 and describes herself as dark-skinned. She says she's been pressured to bleach.

ALI: I've had, like, my aunts come up to me, telling me, like, Salma, you're not ugly. It's just that your skin is just a little dirty. You need to clean it up. I got some products from China. I'm going to hook you up.

(LAUGHTER)

ALI: And I'm like, how is my skin dirty? Like, I'm taking care of myself, you know? But because of the fact that I have darker skin, I'm just seen as ugly. And that's just part of, like, the way we've all been socialized.

ROSENBAUM: Ali says that socialization is embedded in Somali culture, even in the language.

ADAWE: Growing up, if somebody in my family was mad at me, they would call me koor madow, which means hey, darker skin. That's literally all it means. That's the definition. It's koor madow - koor meaning skin, madow meaning black - so dark skin. And it was an insult.

ROSENBAUM: Colorism and skin bleaching isn't just a Somali issue. It's a big business. According to research by the group Global Industry Analysts, the market for skin-lightening products is huge and brings in tens of billions of dollars a year. Amira Adawe says that so long as lighter skin is viewed as more attractive, people will find a way to keep bleaching, sometimes even after they're aware of the health risks. That's why she's made it her mission to start a conversation to reimagine beauty. A few months ago, she started a weekly Somali radio program.

ADAWE: Six-12-353-5596...

ROSENBAUM: Even though skin bleaching is widespread in the Somali community, it's taboo to talk about it openly. So when Adawe got on the airwaves, she made it clear that people could call in anonymously.

ADAWE: Now women call, and men also call and talk about this issue openly. Nobody can tell their voice. And so they're - and they're not mentioning their name. And so that is really helpful.

ROSENBAUM: The show is in Somali and English. And today, Adawe's in-studio guest is another Somali health educator, Hibat Sharif.

HIBAT SHARIF: We're African (speaking Somali). We have dark skin. Our skin is melanated. It's pigmented. It provides us with a lot of benefits health-wise. So why are we telling our girls, oh, you'd look so much better if you were lighter?

ROSENBAUM: Amira Adawe's next step is to take this activism into the schools. She's writing a curriculum for teachers to raise the conversation about skin color and self-esteem. For NPR News, I'm Nancy Rosenbaum in Minneapolis.

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